Jun 202017

The Japan Rail Pass was grossly expensive to someone used to meagre 1980s Australian animation wages but I forked over my hard earned cash anyway, for a chance to explore the length and breadth of a country I’d long wanted to see.

Only available for purchase outside Japan, The JR Pass is valid on ferries and trains (even snazzy Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’) for up to 21 days. In 1986 it was almost as expensive as an air ticket to Asia, and was an exorbitance for a 22 year old who barely payed his rent, but its bargain-value was proven upon seeing crazy Japanese prices. While thoroughly exploring Tokyo I hatched a travel-plan; head north on the main island of Honshu, catch the last snows of Winter up in Hokkaido, travel back down Honshu to the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, and end my grand tour in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto.

However, when trying to validate my JR Pass at Tokyo Station I learned it was invalid with the type of visa in my passport, and could only be refunded outside Japan at the office where I’d bought it. Thoroughly deflated I sulked around Tokyo while deciding what to do. I could no longer afford the itinerary I’d set my heart on, tried to find work (without any luck) and considered heading to Korea or China instead. An enterprising traveller at my guesthouse urged me not to give up on the JR Pass, reasoning that its rules might not be common knowledge. The officious bureaucrats in the JR main office knew them in detail, but somebody in another station might not. Sure enough, I eventually found an employee who saw a ‘foreigner rail pass’ held by a foreigner, and cheerfully stamped my JR Pass without checking my visa status. BINGO! With a start-date of March 6th, 1987 I had 3 weeks to see as much of Japan as I could.

Leaving Tokyo, with my JR Pass and a small bag (containing clothes, camera, guidebook, rail-timetable, & sketchbook) a map of Japanese Youth Hostels was my second most useful possession. These days I can book accommodation anywhere in the world from my cellphone, but in the pre-internet age it was daunting to find lodging in countries where you couldn’t speak (or even read) the language. The Youth Hostels Association provides a network of budget accommodation, and in 1980s Japan it was extensive. Typically, bathing was in the Japanese communal style and beds were in dormitories, giving you a modular posse of like-minded travellers if you wanted it. Breakfasts were usually a raw egg in a bowl of rice and seaweed to wrap it in, a strange concoction initially, that eventually I looked forward to. My first stop was Nikko, to see the Tosho-gu shrine (burial place of  the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate) and countless other shrines and temples in a beautiful mountain setting. In subsequent visits to Japan I came to realise that I’d not seen Nikko at its best that first time (my favourite season is Autumn) even so, I was floored by the beauty of the place and the wealth of things to see.

This trip was where my enthusiasm for travel began, kicking off a several-year period where I lived out of a bag and put many miles under my feet. However, I was a meandering traveller and rather lazy about it at times. That was soon to change, due to the influence of a local dynamo:

JOURNAL ENTRY, MARCH 7, SENDAI: “The blistering pace in which I have surged up and away from Tokyo is in part due to the itinerary of a diminutive local known, to me as Matsunaga-san that I have been travelling with since Nikko, where we met in the youth hostel. His idea of travel is to zip from one site and onto the next. The best example of this happened this morning when we arrived at the railway station with half an hour to go until the next train. We jumped into a taxi and sped to the very next town to a museum. He said “please hurry we must leave Museum at 11 AM for train!” It was 10:52. Slightly disgusted but amused also, I declined to shell out (money) to blast through what was potentially an interesting museum in eight minutes. Rather, I waited outside and took photographs. He emerged breathless and hurrisome as ever, and our waiting taxi driver sped us back to the train station where we just caught our train. Once again we zipped to another site, This time a Castle, (Aizu Wakamatsu) with barely enough time to pause and take a photo.”

I recently found a bag of maps, tickets and tourist pamphlets from 1987, including my youth hostel cards. Each hostel in Japan recorded a stay with distinctive stamps, with rewards if you collected enough. Perhaps Matsunaga-san was obsessed with these, or maybe he was simply one of those goal-focussed types.

JOURNAL ENTRY: “While in a temple I may become distracted by an old lady sweeping the stones, or a photography session going on by the gates. Matsunaga-san is hopping from leg to leg with impatience while I stand to observe these things. Thankfully I have not tried to sketch anything yet; that would certainly cut into his schedule.”

My tendency to dawdle, or sit in a coffee shop and look out the window was automatically corrected by the 21 day time limit of the JR Pass. Sloth was already being mauled by frugality without the extra bustlings of Matsunaga-san, and we amicably parted at Matsushima. Supposedly one of the ‘3 great views of Japan‘ back in the days of Basho, and by 1987 it had clearly been a tourism mecca for quite a while. After checking out the great view, you’d turn 180° for the great view of the crowds looking at the great view, and beyond them the great view of the shops selling views of the other view. This was perhaps my first trip where I reflected on the absurdity of being a tourist who was annoyed by the ravages of tourism. Something about seeing a place changes that place itself (quantum tourism mechanics) and in Japan, where there are so many people doing the seeing, such realisations are quickly brought into focus. Celebrating my freedom from the hectic scheduling of Matsunaga-san, I luxuriated in a daylong walk along The Bay of Matsushima, famously dotted by hundreds of tiny islands.

24 years later these islands shielded Matsushima from the full force of the 2011 tsunami, and places heard in the news leapt from memory as towns I’d stayed in long ago, including wave-pounded Ishinomaki. Nearby Onagawa was devastated by quirks of its geography when a funneled inlet amplified the tsunami’s force and 10% of its citizens were washed away. This fishing village (where I long ago transferred from train to bus) became a site of tragic heroism when Mitsuru Sato, the manager of a fish canning plant, rescued all his trainees but was swept away himself. I remember an early morning bus ride, winding through rainy valleys and past misty factories, strangely beautiful the way such places can sometimes be. That looming industrial shadow may have been heroic Mitsuru Sato’s factory, but internet maps reveal another candidate; the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant. Though much closer to the epicentre than the failed Fukushima plant, this reactor withstood the destruction. The difference was building on higher ground, choosing higher safety over lower cost. The foresight of engineer Yanosuke Hirai saved Onagawa’s reactor, and the building became refuge for a community whose homes had been washed away.

I was passing through this area to see Kinkasan, a tiny island at the the end of the Oshika-hanto peninsula. With a population of 32 people, 240 monkeys and 600 deer, it had been called ‘one of the holiest places in Japan‘. Half expecting a holy site ringed by trinket shops selling tea-towels of the holy critters, I arrived to a good news/bad scenario. Kinkasan was every bit the serene island of scenic beauty I’d heard about, but I’d not done my homework and its infrastructure shut down November to March. Accomodation was closed and there were only 2 daily ferries, so I contented myself with ambling about the misty island and barely took a photo, let alone sketch. The island was so pretty that I considered sleeping rough outside, until a fall of light rain brought me to my senses. It would be unpleasant to be out all night and cold and rained on. Wistfully, I got on the last ferry and plotted my next move. Retracing my ferry/bus/train steps got me to Ichinoseki well after hostel curfew. Sleeping in a bus stop held no allure whatsoever, and in fractured Japanese I enquired at the railway station about hotels. A worker understood my plight and walked me to a nearby minshuku where I got a room, and spent the rest of that evening in a lounge squatting at a kotatsu drinking with off-duty rail workers, already several beers into a good night. Their jovial companionship briefly convinced me that I was conversing in Japanese, whereas it was simply that such conversations follow the same pattern anywhere, and misunderstandings are smoothed over by good spirits (and spirits).

Even 30 years ago my next stop was reputed to be overly touristed, but I was pleasantly surprised by GeibiKei gorge. Even a tourist trap can be charming if you’re the only tourist in the trap; I had a barge all to myself, poled up the river by two bargemen, a glass roof allowing me to admire the gorge while sitting by a heater, sipping tea. It was another misty day, serene and beautiful and the bargemen were cheerful. Seeing as there was only one tourist, and him a foreigner besides, the lads stopped at a few shrines along the river to gather money. I doubt they’d have openly raked this loot in front of your typical praying Japanese punter tossing coins for good luck, but with only me, they figured what the hell; “Oi, Kenji, save us a trip and hop out and grab the dosh.” Next, I hopped the Shinkansen to Morioka where it terminated (in 1987) and transferred to Aomori, catching an early ferry next day to Hakodate on Hokkaido, where I met two American Mormons on their ‘3 year mission‘. In contrast to frosty Tokyo Gaijin, these missionaries were eager to talk, and not simply to proselytise (I got the impression that they were lonely). Hakodate had a great atmosphere, helped along by its old wharf area buildings, wooden trolley-cars and whimsically musical pedestrian lights (playing ‘comin’ through the rye‘). At the end of my whirlwind 1987 tour of Japan, Hokkaido was one of the places I’d wished I’d lingered longer (eventually travelling all around Hokkaido in 1989).

Back on Honshu, I was eager to see Hirosaki Castle, which I’d read was the real thing rather than a postwar reconstruction in concrete (as at Aizu Wakamatsu) but it didn’t fill my expectations. I’d eventually realise that Japanese castles couldn’t top memories of childhood visits to British castles, with their foreboding silhouettes, dungeons, murder holes and torture chambers, setting my morbid little-boy imagination afire. The aesthetic of Japanese castles is completely different. Rather than projecting ‘menace‘, they’re ‘pretty‘, and these cake topper cuties are better compared to a chateau, another building made to impress but in a completely different way. Show pony rather than war horse. Japanese castles were lacy confections made of paper and wood, meaning that few survived the 1945 exertions of General Curtis LeMay (and his OddJob; Robert McNamara). Any castles not destroyed in WW2 had already been flattened countless times by typhoon, quake, or fire (or all of the above). Truly ancient castles just don’t exist in Japan.

A long train ride on The Gono Line took me along Honshu’s northernmost Japan Sea coast, where the tracks were very close to the sea, revealing stunning vistas of bleak grey beauty. I’m not a train-nut by any means but enjoy countries with well-developed rail networks for the simple reason that I can’t drive, making countries like Australia or the USA problematic to navigate in anything but the most perfunctory fashion. Japan’s extensive rail infrastructure gave me scope to explore, and I enjoyed switching from high-tech Shinkansen to dinky trains (with only 2 or 3 cars) to see remote parts of the archipelago. Staying in a tiny coastal town called Fukaura, I walked further along the coast the next morning, before another long train ride took me inland to… a dead spot in my memory. Unsure of which route took me to my next remembered destination, no maps jog my memory, nor is there any ticket stub, photo, or sketchbook-doodle that clarifies those lost days of my 21 day journey. Such voids are a reminder how frail memory can be. Without photos, letters, or conversation to keep neural pathways alive, our experiences wither. Moreover, the memories we do have are often exaggerations or simplifications of what really happened. Several trips, conversations and people become consolidated over time, and who said what gets jumbled around. Crosschecking photos and documents from that time reveals a sequence that differs from the memory I’d been carrying for 30 years. I’d forgotten visiting some towns, even though I’ve proof that I’d been there. These inconsistencies are part of the motivation to write memories down, before they curdle or evaporate entirely. Which is a long winded segue to my next remembered stop;

I arrived by twilight to a snow covered hostel run by a cheerful family near Tazawako, a beautiful lake in snowy Akita prefecture. The woman running the place cheerfully urged me to have bath before dinner, and I was led to a bathhouse a short walk away by a little boy holding an umbrella, to shield me and my toiletries from the thickly falling twilight snow. It was a beautiful night as he chattered at me happily, led me to the ‘sento‘, gave me the umbrella and scampered back to his Mum at the hostel. As I sat in the lovely Japanese style tub, soaking in hot water up to my earlobes, I thought of  the wholesomeness of the ‘bathhouse’ concept in Japan, made all the more beautiful by the snowy setting. Growing up in Australia, I had seen snow laying all around only once or twice, and even then it was patchy slop. My plunge northward to Hokkaido was partly an attempt to find deep snow, but the snow in Hakodate was slush. At Tazawako, snow was piled thickly and there was nobody around but me, as early the next morning I walked partway around the lake, before heading onward by local train to connect with a bullet train back to Tokyo, spending the night before heading onward the next day by Shinkansen.

The most beautiful of the many castles I saw on my first trip to Japan, Himeji Castle loomed on a hill in the centre of town, finally delivering the skyline-dominating profile that I associated with a defensible castle. I spent a day walking around Japan’s largest castle, taking photos in misty rain, until night fell and light finally failed. Atypically, Himeji Castle is largely authentic construction from the early 1600s (though the site dates from the 1300s). Though the city around it was firebombed in WW2,  the castle survived when the firebomb dropped on it failed to detonate. The next day I went onward to see the sobering Peace Memorial Museum at Hiroshima, a reminder of the further industriousness brought to bear on the Japanese after those fire-bombing missions ended. A people long-pounded by typhoons, quakes and tsunamis had developed a resilience that is hard to overestimate, but Oppenheimer’s crew finally broke Japanese wartime tenacity, at terrible cost. The information within the museum wasn’t presented hysterically, and didn’t need to be. A simple statement of the ghastly facts of 1945 was enough to set mental wheels in motion, extrapolating frightening destruction if the latest generation of slaughter-tech (proudly crafted by our best and brightest) were ever unleashed. Coming out of the museum, I was hollowed out by the experience. Hiroshima was the only time I saw money gathering in Japan, and the people soliciting donations were from a charity for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every person coming out of the museum gave generously.

After visiting beautiful Miyajima nearby, I rode the Shinkansen to its westernmost terminus, which in 1987 was in Fukuoka, Kyushu. The timetable indicated my arrival would be mere minutes before departure of the local train I needed. Bigger Japanese train stations can be overwhelming (a statistic that stays with me was that Shinjuku station served 3 million passengers daily in 1986) and I doubted I’d be able to get my bearings and make my connection in time. Normally this wouldn’t matter as trains were so frequent, but I needed to connect to a local train, and from that to another, to get to my intended hostel before curfew. Time was of the essence. Arriving at Hakata Station, I took the easy way out, simply doing my by-then standard pantomime of a confused foreigner, hoping to find a sympathetic soul. Remarkably (and typically for Japan) I did. He was an average Japanese ‘salaryman’ in suit and brief case and no doubt had his own connections to make, but when barraged with questions delivered in broken Japanese (and frantic pointings at maps with circled destinations, and timetable connection times) he immediately grasped my situation. Snapping into action, he bustled me through the crowded station, urging me to follow him with all haste, down stairs; Hai, Haiyaku! along a corridor teeming with people; Oide! up some more stairs, and along again. He got me to my train and seated, with time to spare. After thanking him profusely and waving our goodbyes, he reappeared at my window a moment later with a simple meal he’d bought for me from a platform vendor, just as my train departed. I’ve often thought how lucky I was to have my first solo travel adventure in Japan. I later learned that in other countries throwing yourself on the goodwill of the locals can be to paint a ‘fleece me‘ sign on your head, but in Japan the people were always gracious, helpful, generous and honest.

One of Kyushu’s many scenic railway journeys took me past views of early Spring blossoms to Aso-San, one of two active volcanoes on the island. As the train came within sight of the volcano I was awestruck to see red lava flowing down the mountain! When I checked in to the nearby hostel I was told that the ‘lava‘ streams were actually thousands of people bearing flaming torches in a fire festival. Wonderful! I couldn’t wait to attend, but discovered that this distant spectacle was in the process of ending. I became shrill; Surely there must be a taxi service or something? Can’t I just walk there? But as far as I was able to discover, there was no way to get to this spectacular culmination of the month-long ‘end of winter‘ celebration before it ended. Dame Desu! I suspected the truth was that hostel staff didn’t want the kooky gaijin wandering off into the night to play with fire, after he’d signed in and become their responsibility, but I had to make-do with watching the fire orgy as it climaxed from a few miles away. The next day I went up to the crater, in the company of other young travelers from the hostel who’d been up there the night before and assured me that the festival was utterly sugoi!

Impressive though it was, unfortunately my imagination had been set ablaze the night before and it was hard not to smoulder.

JOURNAL ENTRY: “I saw an active volcano at Mount Aso. No big deal really. It belches out smoke while dried out old ladies sell souvenirs on the lip of the crater.”

That’s the bitterness of a thwarted 22 year old kicking himself for not researching his trip more thoroughly (and those old ladies were actually sweeties). Just one day earlier (4 hours, even!) and I could’ve participated in the fire festival rather than merely watch it impotently from afar. I realise now how lucky I was to see what I saw. To stand in one of the biggest active volcano craters in the world is no small thing, and the Aso-san crater is often overwhelmed by sulphurous fumes, or cable-car access is closed due to earthquake.

Kyushu still had another active volcano and I bustled further south to see it, via another beautiful train journey down the west coast of Kyushu. The closer I got to Kagoshima the more excited I became to see Sakurajima, the iconic volcano belching fire over Kagoshima, like a Japanese Vesuvius. But it was another case of vulcanus interruptus. Bucketing down with torrential rain, it was hard to see (or do) anything in Kagoshima.  The weather still hadn’t changed after staying the night, so I kept moving, contenting myself with a few looks at colourful posters rather than Sakurajima volcano itself.

I went up the east coast of Kyushu, then inland to Takachiho Gorge. This beautiful area was accessible in 1987 via the Takachiho Railway from Nobeoka, before that line was swept away by Typhoon Nabi in 2005. In Japan you’ll often hear of destruction wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, and every temple or castle you visit has been repeatedly rebuilt (no wonder a people so often pounded by nature and science would invent Godzilla, the ultimate city-smashing temper tantrum). The train followed the river all the way to Takachiho, with town after town nestled in nooks between water and tracks. This area was another I could have spent more time in. The weather was lovely and the scenery beautiful, but with only a few days left on my JR pass I pressed onward to the Kyushu east coast and Beppu, a hot springs town where any hot water bubbling out of the ground is fenced off so a fee can be charged to look at, sip or sit, in it.

I walked through these places with a French woman I met at the hostel and neither of us were impressed, until stumbling onto a pretty spring garden with small hot springs completely ignored by the crowds and the guidebooks. Minimal entrance fee, cups of tea served by a nice old lady in a quiet teahouse. Best of all, I found round the back one of the tourist traps a wonderful boilerhouse, presumably sitting over a geyser. Marvellous thing it was; belching steam, alive with pipes and valves, all covered in mineral salts. This was often the pattern; I’d head towards a ‘destination’ that might be a disappointment, but there was usually something else around that made it worthwhile (life itself is often like that too). A quick ferry ride from took me to Yawatahama in Shikoku, the smallest of the 4 main islands of the Japanese archipelago.

After staying in Uwajima, and walking to the castle there, I went onward by local train to Kochi and looked around its castle too, which retained prewar splendour high on a spectacular hill. Kochi was a deserving of more exploration, but I moved on. After chasing elusive volcanoes and castles, I was in the mood for scenic beauty which Shikoku has in great abundance, and I wanted to get as far as the picturesque Iya Valley before my JR pass finally expired, on March 26 1987, the day I drew these sketches;

The hostel I checked into that day was a treasure. Japanese Youth hostels of the 1980s were always clean and affordable, but could be be either an ugly spartan blockhouse or a lovely traditional building, and you could never be sure which until check in. It was hostel roulette. In the Iya Vally I came up a winner, as the hostel was affiliated with a temple and the building and grounds were lovely. As I soaked in the tub of the hostel’s bathouse, I was startled by a shadowy monster emerging from the surrounding steam. This looming leviathan was the pendulous netherbits of another guest staying at the hostel (one of those beanpoles that becomes a tripod when their pants are off) entering the communal tub. He was a likeable fellow from Tennessee, and over the next few days he, I and a Canadian woman (we 3 were the only hostel guests) explored the valley. Firstly, we went on long hikes, but eventually hired bikes and took on a mountain bike course. It took us 11 hours and we were exhausted as we stumbled into the hostel way after curfew. Ouch. Next day we went on another walk, got lost again, and dreading being late again back to our hostel, we hitched a ride from a very sweet woman who took pity on us when we stuck out our thumbs.

After the Iya Valley, I took a train north and stayed in Takamatsu,  visiting the wonderful Ritsurin garden (before departure of my overnight ferry back to Honshu). Later that same year in Suzhou, China, I saw many classical Chinese gardens being rebuilt after the ravages of the not-then long ago Cultural Revolution. Interestingly, consultants hired by the Chinese government to retrain the Chinese how to do Chinese gardens were traditional gardeners from Japan (which of course had learned how to garden from the Chinese in the first place) and Ritsurin supplied some of the expertise.

JOURNAL ENTRY, APRIL FOOLS DAY 1987, NARA: “Coming into Osaka Bay at 5:30 AM is quite breathtaking. The light at that time transformed an otherwise ugly harbour into something magical. I walked through Osaka fish market and the city itself most the day, before coming onward to Nara, a pretty town with by far the largest concentration of historical buildings I have yet seen. For what it’s worth I can say that I’ve been on all the major islands of Japan.”

Doing the travel blitz is OK for a few days, but maintaining that rhythm for weeks is a drain (as snippy asides on these sketches show). Blasting around seeing a different town every day blurs it all together, and occasionally staying in one place is essential for me to really get to know a country, at even a superficial level.

By the time I arrived in Kyoto, I’d been a proactive power-tourist for long enough, and was again ready to meander and relax, spending a few weeks enjoying the cherry blossom season of April 1987. I stayed in a guesthouse occupied by both temporary travellers like myself, and longterm tenants living & working in Kyoto. Most were young, probably just out of college, and very similar despite coming from various countries, but one tenant was unlike any other I ever met in years of traveling.  He was much older, possibly as old as 45 (gasp) and didn’t fit the typical backpacker profile. He was a short-haul truck driver from Tacoma Washington, with mixture of broad American mannerisms and a childlike wonder about his present situation. Always sunny and kind, I gradually inferred some sadder parts of his history, which only appearing as sidebars to the main conversation and were never worn on his sleeve. The more I got to know him the more impressed I was that this fellow had plunged into the unknown. When asked what set him on the road, his answer was very much like my own; he’d always been fascinated by far away places. He had little money, apart from somebody renting his truck back in Washington. He was under no pressure to head back home and we explored Kyoto together before it was time for me to leave.

When I’d thought the JR Pass wasn’t going to work, I’d been told that Japan was a wonderful place to hitchhike. Though the Japanese did not often hitchhike themselves, and may look askance at those Japanese who did, they were generous in picking up foreign hitchhikers. With JR Pass expired and my funds low after months in Japan, I hitchhiked from Kyoto back to Tokyo, getting rides from an outgoing truck driver in a garishly decorated truck (in the Japanese style) and a businessman whose car would PING PING berate him when he went over the speed limit, much to his chagrin (I later found out such nagging cars were standard). Back in Tokyo I picked up the bulk of my bags from storage, before heading to Korea (and later China).

My first trip to Japan had started in Okinawa (via ferry from Taiwan) then onward by ferry to explore Tokyo, before activating my JR Pass. What a bargain it had been, giving me a whirlwind introduction to a country I’ve revisited many times over the years, and love to this day.

Jul 102014

popeye_firstIn 1988 I was living and working in Tokyo, and I had a few steady illustration gigs to supplement my other jobs, which were some English teaching when I first arrived in Japan, and then working at TOEI animation studio when I got better established.  It was a busy time. One of the magazines I did a few illustration jobs for was the men’s fashion magazine POPEYE, which is in a big building in the Ginza district called MAGAZINE HOUSE. When dropping off an assignment, I’d enjoy reading in their big international magazine library, including periodicals from back home in Australia. In the pre-internet years, discovering a resource like that was a real treat when far from home.



The MAGAZINE HOUSE building must have contained production for at least 6 or 8 different magazines, and I did little spot illustrations for a few of them. This article here was about international shopping trips and the various deals that could be had for Japanese abroad. In those fat years of the 1980s, when the Yen was absolutely booming, bargains could be had just about anywhere, apart from at home. The prices in Japan were nutty back then, and the area where MAGAZINE HOUSE had its offices, the Ginza district, was hands-down one of the most expensive. I remember getting a cup of coffee, and a very expensive spit-take ensued when I got the $10 bill. If that sounds steep NOW, it was excruciating for a backpacker 25 years ago.

Jun 102011

More from the archive; a magazine illustration done while living in JAPAN, for a story about the TOKYO CAR SHOW (in ball-point pen and water colour).

The article claimed that the prestigious CAR OF THE YEAR award was won not on the merits of the car itself but on how much money was spent in the media campaign to win the award.


I used to do illustration as a side job while still working in the animation industry and I kept it up for several years, mainly because, back then, I didn’t think my animation career was going to last. Almost from the day I began working in animation, it appeared that the business itself was done for. All the older artists said so, and it was hard to disagree when looking at the quality of the work that was being done; not just by us, but at the best studios in the world.

Of course, a few years later everything turned around. We started to see things like THE FAMILY DOG, ROGER RABBIT and then the renaissance of DISNEY, which led to the founding of Dreamworks, Pixar and a host of other successful studios. But before that happened, I had to think what I would do if, as everyone was predicting, the biz was not going to last. And illustration was my PLAN-B.

I started doing small illustration jobs while still living in Sydney and continued, even when living in Asia. In Tokyo, I had a few magazines that I would do spot illustrations for each month and I really looked forward to those assignments because, as I said, the quality of the animation I worked on back then was not very good. The illustration assignments were my chance to have some fun.

These days I channel most of that extra energy into pottering about with personal projects but I sometimes think about doing some illustration again someday…

Mar 302011

This colour pencil drawing is my submission to the HITOTSU art Auction being held this Saturday at the SUPERFROG GALLERY, as a fund-raiser for JAPAN.

In trying to do a piece for a show that honours Japan, I started out by thinking of all my favourite Japanese cartoon characters, which is where my love of Japanese culture began (Cartoons is where my love of America began too, incidentally). After a few days of doodling, I ended up with this image; MY version of two Japanese Cartoon icons, at the beginning of a beautiful relationship. If you’re in San Francisco this Saturday, please come to the NEW PEOPLE building in Japantown. The Auction will take place at the TOP floor SUPERFROG GALLERY from 7PM-10PM. It will be a lot of fun and it’s for a GREAT cause!

To get a preview of all the excellent pieces flooding in (from 50 different artists in the animation community) head over to the MAVERIX STUDIOS blog. You can also pre-register for the auction to avoid what will be LONG lines during the paying/pick-up process.

See you all there!

Mar 232011
Patrick HUG

Always awesome artist PATRICK AWA has just busted out yet another wonderful piece and this one was done specifically to raise money for the QUAKE in Japan.

Patrick Awa Print
It is called “ANONYMOUS HUG” In his own words:

“In the aftermath of the ongoing tragedy in Japan, I was so anxious that I had a hard time focusing on painting. Although I originally would have liked to make something more uplifting or encouraging, the event was simply too devastating, with the death toll of tens of thousands and millions suffering right now.
This piece is dedicated to all of the survivors and to those that have lost their lives.”

LIMITED EDITION PRINTS (all signed, gold embellished and
numbered) are available NOW at 1xRUN. The original will be sold at the MAVERIX STUDIOS AUCTION next week at the SUPERFROG GALLERY.

100% of the proceeds from the sale will go to Give2Asia.

Mar 162011

Lately, I can think of nothing else than the tragedy in Japan, a country where I spent many happy years but that is being tested to the limit right now.

While it’s heart-breaking to look at the videos and photos of the terrifying scale of the destruction wrought by the Quake and Tsunami (and the prospect of nuclear disaster) I seek them out them out anyway… perhaps KNOWING the scale of the tragedy is some small compensation for being powerless to do anything about it.

But the other comfort in watching all the grim news is being reminded of the strength and dignity of the Japanese people in the face of adversity. When I lived there, I often wondered at their ability to cheerfully persevere against the odds; to be accepting and dynamic at the same time. The Japanese culture, having grown in a region often devastated by quakes, tsunamis, typhoons, volcanoes and fires, seems to have imbued its people with a sort of stoic, industriousness. The tenacity to ACCEPT such hardships without giving-up or failing to PREPARE for them.

Just as they have rebuilt their nation from devastation many times in the past, the Japanese will apply these qualities, not to mention their famous ingenuity and communal co-operation, to rise above this disaster too; one that would probably permanently cripple many other nations.

But, like many others, I want to help. Donating to Charities involved in the relief effort is the simplest and easiest way, but somehow it doesn’t feel as powerful as being ACTIVELY engaged directly myself. So I have been researching ways to get more involved, both by looking on the web and calling the Japanese Consulate, and I have found some interesting perspectives on the issue.

Apparently, this early in any major disaster, grassroots efforts to help can hinder teams with real relief expertise. When the infrastructure of the disaster area is taxed to the limit, a simple care-parcel of letters and candy sent by a well-meaning person can choke the system and slow down the delivery of more useful supplies, such as medicine. Well-meaning people flocking to the site hoping to help, soon become yet another problem for relief agencies to deal with.

I must admit that my first instinct was to send packages and letters of support, in addition to the charitable donations of money. My feeling NOW is that it is better to wait till later to send care packages, and I fully intend to do so when the time is right. In the meantime, I plan to do some artwork and participate in a ART-AUCTION FUNDRAISER (details to follow when I know them myself).

Hold on Japan, we love you!
japan we love you

Mar 172009

There has been a meme going around the Facebook community whereby people write an autobiographical list of 25 factoids about themselves. Mine took a while to type (I am both a windbag and a very slow typist) so I thought I may as well post it here too, for posterity:


1. I have been on the fence about doing this 25 THINGS thing… First, I was going to ignore it, then planned to make up 25 facetious things, but in the end just decided to do it. That internal mental tussle between different options, that ends in doing nothing new at all, is the state of my mind at any given time; passionately ambivalent about most things. The wheels are spinning constantly but forward progress (if there is any) is slow.

2. I am the first member of my family (on either side) to be born outside of Australia for 4 generations, which is very rare down there, where most people have shown up rather recently. I alone was born in Scotland. My parents met at university and had moved to Edinburgh while my dad was completing his studies and, once he was done, they moved back to Australia where the rest of my siblings were born.

3. As far as I know, even though my family has been in Australia for quite some time, there is no convict in my ancestry. This has supposedly been verified on my father’s side; a point of pride for my dad but actually a great disappointment to me… I haven’t given up hope that a long hidden cut-purse or pick-pocket will someday fall out of my mother’s side of the family tree if I shake it hard enough.

4. My earliest memories are from growing up in Tasmania, some from possibly as far back as 2 years old but it is hard to date them because there is nothing in the memories to place them into a time-line. The first memory that CAN be positively dated is of my baby sister Rachel, from when I was 3 years old, because she died when I was 3 and a half. I remember that day too. My father and I are the only two people left in my family who have any memories of her. If she had lived she would have been 42 now.

5. Most men have experienced a time in their childhood when they felt bullet proof. I never had this feeling myself. Although I feel childish now as an adult, back when I actually WAS a child, I felt like a feeble old man. Water terrified me back then, probably due to an episode when I was kick-boarding in the sea at around the age of 5. When the kick-board was flicked out of my hands by a wave, I went from misplaced confidence to abject terror within two gulpings of sea water. Thankfully, my dad spotted me going under and was able dive in and fish me out in time. Consequently, I didn’t learn to swim until I was about 17. That is very rare in Australia where your typical kid can swim almost from birth.

6. I look atrocious in a Speedo.

7. Many years later, when living in Japan, I was at the most crowded beach I had ever seen in my life; an absolute sea of humanity covered the sand. I went up onto the heads for a better view from which to take a photo of the crowd (otherwise nobody would believe such a scene back in Australia). Just below me, a group of little kids was out in the deep water with kick-boards. No sooner was I reminded of the day that I lost my own kick-board many years before…. than one of the kids was caught in the backwash of a wave coming off the rocks, lost her kick-board and went under the water. She was a long way from shore and the life-guards. So, without pausing to take off my shoes and clothes, I jumped in and grabbed her. It was impossible to clamber back up the vertical rocks, so I swam for the shore, which was hard going due to the extra weight of my sodden clothes. Anyway, I got her to safety. This is one of my proudest achievements, certainly the one where my presence on planet Earth made the most difference to someone else.

8. I am not sure who is the more cruel; Father Time or Mother Nature.

9. I have a wine coloured birthmark on my back that I didn’t even know about for years, because it is in my blind spot and nobody had told me about it. I got quite a fright when I saw it in a mirror for the first time, as a self-conscious teenager.

10. My role as the eldest child was to flush out all my parents’ bad genes to spare my siblings from asthma, excema, allergies, high blood pressure and who knows what else… I’ll probably be bald in a year or two whereas all my 4 brothers have hair thicker than coonskin caps. Despite all that, I have very good eyesight and excellent teeth. At least, I did last time that I checked… I haven’t been to the dentist since 1997 nor the doctor since 1998. I don’t like medicos and their negative trip; “you have high cholesterol” “you have an enlarged prostate” blah, blah, blah…

11. I am agnostic about everything I can think of. When other people emphatically state anything with absolute certainty it mystifies and even annoys me… However, I must confess that I am a bit jealous of the self-righteousness that must be the dividend of their dogma investment.

12. As a small child, I used to believe that we all went to some “real” place when we dreamed. According to my childhood cosmology, if you saw someone in a dream it was because both of your minds had actually met each-other in some fantastic dream-place, a sort of sleepy-time heaven. I now realise that this is utter bollocks but I still like the idea anyway. Sadly, I rarely remember dreams any more. Maybe only twice a year. I’ve always had trouble getting to sleep, and once I have gotten there, also have great difficulty in waking up. Despite (or perhaps because of) those two facts, sleeping is one of my favourite things to do. Also, perhaps related to this lifetime of sleep deprivation, I have a really bad case of Yoda-eyes.

13. Speaking of him; Star Wars changed my life. The Phantom Menace changed it back again.


14. I can tolerate more than the average amount of filth and chaos in my apartment, or my work space, but I like the emotional spaces I inhabit to be minimalist; tidy and free of clutter. I have a hard time dealing mixed feelings or divided loyalties… which is something I need to work on. I am only just realising that life is about achieving a balance between opposites rather than purging one for choosing the other.

15. Anyone who says that I have a fear of emotional commitment clearly has not seen me hold a grudge; till death do us part.

16. I have definitely been in love at least once- either that or it was Stockholm Syndrome- and it is probably true what they say; that true-love never dies, but what they don’t tell you is that the permanence is actually the worst thing about it.

17. Drawing was an escape for me when as a kid. Sadly, I’ve lost that aspect of it now that it’s a job that I get paid to do but my fondness for both it and animation (which I’ve had as long as I can remember) has not diminished even after working in the industry since the age of 17. If I wasn’t working in Animation who knows what I would do…. My current outlet for personal expression, outside of my professional work, is making comics in my spare time… which combines a love for drawing with a recently discovered interest in telling stories. The problem I am dealing with now is reconciling the desire to say something with the fact that I have nothing very original to say… which leads to a curious blend of feeling both full and empty at the same time. But Auden said: “Art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” so maybe there is some fuel for material there after all…


18. There is so much focus on winning in our culture; stories about winners and how to be one… but it is the stories about losing and losers themselves that I am drawn to. I think that it is funny when we call other people “loser” as an insult. By definition, there is only one winner in any event, which makes all the rest of us losers. I learned to identify with being a loser years ago and I have a lot more peace of mind now because of it.

19. I have done hardly any traveling in my home country but way more than my fair share elsewhere in the world. I lived out of a backpack for about 5 years straight, during which time I travelled throughout Asia (while working over there in various animation studios) and also explored both North and South America and did a bit of looking around Europe. I still have a mental image of myself as some global hobo, but the sad fact is that I am fairly sedentary these days. I still have some adventures that I want to go on, so I may strap that backpack on again sometime soon….

20. During a backpacking adventure trip through South America, myself and my childhood pal Peter narrowly avoided jail time when we discovered that some rat-bags had been smuggling drugs under our seats. After our intercity bus had passed the security checkpoint outside Lima, searched from end to end by fierce-looking guards bristling with weaponry, the two shady characters sitting behind us pulled about 8 bags of coke (or heroin or god knows what) out from slits under OUR seat cushions, flashing the two gringo patsies some shit-eating grins as they left. By the time we figured out what had actually gone down, they were off the bus… It was a sobering moment when we realised what would have happened had the guards found the stuff… I would be Facebooking now from a Peruvian prison.

21. My palate can only hear foods when the volume is turned UP; Indian, Thai, Hunan… and some of my best friends are carbohydrates. The smell of baking bread, or any pastry, is irresistible to me.

22. I’m a late starter and slow bloomer in just about everything. I still cannot drive. I am not at all acquisitive; by the time I buy the “latest thing” it is already old news. I don’t own much and the stuff do I own I’ll keep for years. While working in LA a few years ago, a friend referred to me as an “LA quadriplegic” because I didn’t drive or have a celphone. When my old analog TV dies, after the switch to all digital broadcasting happens, I probably wont buy a replacement.

23. Though raised in a rural area, I am a city person at heart. Sure, cities are the orifices of the planet and disgusting sometimes… but orifices are the places where you have the most fun.

24. I have never understood poetry. I know that is a deficiency in me. I like the use of the word, as in ” that movie was poetic” but, although I enjoy lyrical, poetic qualities in many other things, I cannot connect with the real thing at all. Poetry always seems like a song that is missing the music, to me.

25. Being ironic was once the way to go; I looked up to people who always ” took the piss” and could see through hypocrisy, the manipulations of the media and whatnot. That approach still has its place… but after I realised that detachment is my natural state anyway, and that I need something in opposition to my over-active Bullshit-Detector to achieve some balance in life, I am now grateful for those rare books, artworks, music, experiences and people that burn away the fog of sarcasm once in a while, and allow me to truly feel something.

Feb 162008

Some more drawings from a old stash of travel sketches. These are from Japan, 1987.

When I did these, I’d not been in Japan long, having just got off the ferry from Taiwan (via Okinawa) where I had been supervising animation layouts in Taipei. After a few hectic months of tropical heat and crazy Saturday-Morning animation production schedules down there, it was actually refreshing to be in the snowy, cool winter of Japan.

It was especially lovely to have arrived to Tokyo in time for the New Year, which the Japanese do very nicely; many beautiful kimonos on display. I had not been prepared for the charming sight of Kimonos in the snow, thinking that was a thing of the past or merely a display for tourism pamphlets, but that’s exactly what I saw when I arrived. It was exciting; I had wanted to visit Japan for years, and in December 1986, I finally did. These first few sketches were drawn while watching a play in Tokyo. A friend I had made on my earlier Taiwan assignment, Sean Newton, was coincidentally working in Tokyo, and more coincidentally still, the studio he was working at was about 15 minutes walk from my guest house.

In a city as big as Tokyo, that was really remarkable luck for me to have a comrade so close by, and especially one who likes sketching so much and does it so well as Sean. We went out drawing the Tokyo sights together several times in my first weeks in Japan.

I was in tourist mode, exploring Tokyo every day while Sean had to work, but we got together sometimes during his down time, for the occasional sketch session at Tokyo Zoo, or in this case, at the Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza, which I have vivid memories of. We also did some sketching at a Noh play, which I’m told is the more highfaluting theatrical form, but the Kabuki was perhaps more spectacular and colorful, purely from a visual point of view.

Tokyo is one of my favourite cities to explore and get lost in, but eventually even I had to move on. I had a Japan rail pass burning a hole in my pocket, and had to use it or lose it, so I hit the road.


Nov 162007

I’m still scanning and archiving lots of old 1980s travel sketchbooks and doodles.

Here are some of my very rare life-drawings, done on a cold Japanese winter’s day in 1987 at Tokyo’s UENO ZOO. The apes had gone inside to escape the cold, though they couldn’t escape prying eyes, as we human beings could observe them in their little shelter, from behind super-thick plexi-glass. The observation room was relatively warm and a good place to do some sketching. As other visitors came and went, I got to really study the gorilla as he sat in a very relaxed pose apparently not even noticing the crowd. Suddenly, he sprang into a classic SILVER-BACK pose and violently banged his fists on the glass so hard that the plexi-glass pane went BOOM!

This terrified everyone, and sent them running and yelling out into the cold, clearing the observation room, only to slowly fill up again with a new group of people who were unaware of how much jeopardy their underpants were about to be in, because over the course of about 40 minutes, I saw the gorilla pull this move about once every 7 minutes or so. After the first time, it was pretty funny to watch him affecting this “I’m not watching you guys” attitude but then, with a little tell-tale glance at the crowd (just to make sure that the observation room had filled up) he would again unload a KING KONG moment, which was guaranteed to scare the ramen-noodles out of everyone– me included.

I will be posting much more of My Japan travel Sketches

Nov 082007

These are some of the illustrations for an English Language text book for Japanese readers. I drew them many years ago while I was working and living in Japan.

In the early months, my income was mainly from Teaching English, so freelance illustration jobs were a welcome distraction from my limitations as an English Language teacher…. I didn’t teach at a school (if you can call what I was doing “teaching” at all) instead, I put on a tie and an ill-fitting suit (bought from a shady tailor in Bangkok) and went to teach on-site at several businesses around Tokyo (including National Electronics and Toshiba) that had conversational English classes as part of the training program for their employees. I spent a lot of time travelling around Tokyo by train, going from job to job. Using Google Earth and WikiMapia I was recently able to figure out where some of my old teaching posts were.

This was part of a long period in my life where I rarely participated in a fluent conversation. In the evenings, my students mangled my own language (under my earnest direction) and the for the rest of the day I mangled theirs, as I tried to learn Japanese. Though I was a language-teacher at night, in the mornings I was a language-student myself, attending Japanese language classes. I am sad to say that I never got very fluent, despite my very best efforts (a Japanese friend tells me that I speak Japanese like a little girl) but I managed to pick up enough “survival” Japanese to get around, order food and have limited conversations with anyone patient enough to listen to me shred the verb conjugations of their language.

Thankfully, both for me and the well-being of my English-language students, I soon found a job that I was better qualified for; working in animation (at TOEI Studios, on a Superman TV series) and so I quit being an English teacher. Though the full-time job meant that I unfortunately had to give up my morning Japanese classes, it was a relief to be able to take off the baggy suit and neck-tie and draw all day. I continued to do freelance illustration jobs, in addition to the animation work, right up until I left Japan.